Working alongside a robot not futuristic enough for you? How about wearing a robot while you work? That's an actual thing that's happening at a Lowe's store in Christiansburg, VA, thanks to a partnership between the home improvement retailer and Virginia Tech.
Store employees are testing out a robotic exosuit developed by Lowe's and a team of undergraduate and graduate students from Virginia Tech's Assistive Robotics Laboratory. The exosuit is designed to aid in heavy lifting by "absorbing energy and delivering it back to the user," according to a news release from Lowe's. It also encourages proper lifting form, which may help employees avoid strains and work-related injuries.
The genesis of the Lowe's-Virginia Tech partnership is noteworthy, too: Lowe's maintains a "disruptive technology hub" known as Lowe's Innovation Labs that engages science fiction writers to develop narratives where technology helps individuals maximize their performance. "They try to envision what the world will look like in the future and try to draw graphic novels…really to try not only to envision what the future could look like but how different elements of society could work together or future technological advances could be made more practical," says Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech. One outcome of that was a science fiction story about people wearing exosuits and working with robots.
Asbeck had been working at Harvard as a post-doctorate research scientist and was a principal designer of technology designed to help soldiers carrying heavy backpacks; publicity about that effort brought him to the attention of Lowe's. Asbeck landed at Virginia Tech in 2015, and the partnership with Lowe's to develop exosuits for trial took root.
Asbeck and his team of students visited two Lowe's stores to observe stockers and other workers and how they did their jobs. One key takeaway: "The employees actually do a whole lot more motions than we thought they'd be doing," he says. "There are way more heavy objects in the stores than we could possibly imagine," from 5-gallon paint buckets to toilets to lumber.
That meant a lot of practical opportunity for technology to help workers, but the flexibility of movement required added to the complexity of designing a workable exosuit. "Wearable devices are actually really complicated," Asbeck notes. "If there's something on your body and you're moving around a lot, it has the potential to pull on you or push on you in ways that you don't expect from the outset." With a goal of moving quickly to get the suits into test rather than trying to perfect them before employees get a chance to use them, Asbeck's team built four suits, which currently are being tested by five Christiansburg store employees. They're adjustable to account for users' varying body types; Asbeck likens the fitting process to finding an appropriate hiking backpack.
The exosuits will be in test in the Christiansburg store through this summer, with Asbeck's team continually making small tweaks for comfort and wearability. The goal is to expand their use in Lowe's stores, and Asbeck would like to see the technology more broadly available after that. Asbeck says feedback with the initial suits so far has been encouraging. "Thus far the response has been really positive; people really like them," he says.
To learn more, read the June cover story, "Hand in hand: What collaborative robots mean for worker safety," and "Stäubli’s vision of the collaborative future."